GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Barely 24 hours earlier, Florida coach Tim Walton sat in the very same seat in the NCAA interview room and was asked about the importance of bringing an element of power to the College World Series.
“I think you have to pitch and play defense,” he said. “Home runs come and go, especially on a stage like this. So you have to do a good job of playing catch and pitching well.”
And if you don’t do either well you get an outcome like Thursday’s 9-2 loss at the hands of Tennessee that threw the Gators, the No. 2 overall seed when the 64-team tournament began two weeks ago, into the elimination bracket.
All-America pitcher Hannah Rogers threw just 26 pitches - 15 of them were balls as the hurler struggled to find the strike zone. She was in the dugout before the end of the first inning after walking three of the five batters she faced in what turned into an early 3-0 deficit. Reliever Lauren Haeger was greeted by the first batter she faced, Melissa Brown, with a two-run double and went on to give up 10 hits and six runs.
Defensively, the nation’s No. 3 fielding percentage team made some dazzling plays, but a pair of ill-timed errors in the Tennessee sixth inning helped the Volunteers tack on four runs a half-inning after the Gators had closed to 3-2.
Fielding? Not their usual sterling effort.
Tough day for the Gators’ lifeblood elements.
When the game was over, Florida (55-8) had been handed its first lopsided loss of the season -- the previous seven were by two runs or less -- and Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly, during his turn with the media, found himself referencing Walton’s remarks of the day before.
But with a different spin.
“I think it’s pitching and offense,” he said.
That was easy for Weekly to say. He had both Thursday.
The Vols, whose three games with the Gators during the regular season were each decided in extra innings (UF won two), got the gift first inning, including a walked-in run.
“Things just weren’t going my way,” Rogers said.
After exiting, Rogers watched the Vols pile up 11 hits, five for extra bases. The final score could have been worse, as UT runners stranded 10 runners
UF left nine of their own on the base paths and left ASA Hall of Stadium with just four hits; two of them from freshman second baseman Kelsey Stewart.
“I give Tennessee more credit than I take away from us,” Walton said. “They just looked like the better ball club.”
The Vols had the three-run cushion before their starting pitcher, Ellen Renfroe, had taken the field. But the Gators, even with their ace done for the day, were undeterred.
“No one was down,” Stewart said of a squad made up mostly of first-timers on this big stage. “We’d come back from bigger deficits than that.”
It was Stewart who spanked a run-scoring triple in the UF fifth to start a rally that had big-number potential. Hers was one of just two hits in the inning, yet the Gators -- as they've done all season when it comes to manufacturing scoring ops -- loaded the bases with two outs and freshman Taylor Schwarz, she of the game-winning RBI in Sunday’s Super Regional clincher against UAB, coming to the plate.
Schwarz bounced into a force at third base, but UF had the momentum in clawing back within 3-2.
Then came Tennessee’s four-run sixth, marred by a throwing error from third baseman Stephanie Tofft and fielding one from Stewart. Back-to-back doubles from Kat Dotson and Lauren Gibson made it 7-2.
The Vols got two more in their seventh, on three more hits (two for extra bases), plus a wild pitch.
“We didn’t play very well,” Walton said. “Uncharacteristic mistakes.”
No question. Pitching and defense had carried the Gators all season, oftentimes overcoming struggles on offense.
It would be even more uncharacteristic if all three fail show up again Saturday with the season on the line.